In between the shutter chk chk chk noises of my camera, the sawing of carbon head tubes, and the conversations between riders I hear,
Oh my God…
What’s he wearing?”
Axel Merckx (“The Belgian”), director of Axeon Cycling’s U23 team, is watching a video on his phone. His riders are suiting up for the team’s first ride and getting last minute bike adjustments from the team mechanics. After another minute passes, I go to see what he’s watching.
A tall, slender, tow-headed kid is jumping over rails, hopping over large stairwell gaps, and flipping off just about anything, all the while wearing what you’d picture Lil Wayne wears to the gym. But it isn’t awkward. Disregard the M.C. Hammer pants and it’s clear he’s athletic and knows what he’s doing. The video has over 6,800 views on Youtube. The Belgian, however, is still fixated on his outfit.
The athlete in the video is Axeon’s Keegan Swirbul and he’s doing parkour, the fluid, urban obstacle course maneuvering developed in France in the 80’s.
Keegan is quick to defend his choice of attire, “Yea man, that’s the style; the bigger the [pants] better.” Not long after the video ends the riders depart.
Tucson, Arizona was serving as home base for the Axeon Cycling 4 day camp, a preliminary introduction to the season for the U.S. based team before the official team camp in early March. One of the main focuses was distribution of team gear and bikes from newly added sponsors.
The team room is the Mt. Vesuvius of overflowing merchandise volcanoes. Jerseys, bibs, leg warmers, gloves, helmets, sunglasses, shoes, socks, and other accessories were everywhere. If you could use it for riding, it was there. While the piles of gear stretched out into the far corners of the mini ballroom, it wasn’t to say that the room was in disarray. Reed McCalvin, the team’s soigneur (French for “one who provides care,” though sometimes affectionately “team mom”), has a systematic method and each rider has a collection, which later is placed into a box and distributed to them.
Reed and the Belgian make team introductions, give a quick run-down about the camp, and then send riders off to don their new gear for team photos. At 8am the following morning, the riders eat breakfast and get ready for the day’s ride. At 9:30 they head out. A few of us follow behind in a team car to shoot photos and videos. After a few hours, the riders return and the team mechanics, Eric Fostvedt and Zack Foley, make any necessary adjustments. Lunch is healthy, usually a salad and a grilled chicken wrap or a sandwich. Or two. The hunger level of a young adult male post 3+ hour ride needs no further explanation, but watching 9 of them eat simultaneously is something different. My joke about “Jurassic Park” deleted scenes is returned with blank stares; I later realize it was released in theaters before any of the riders were born.
Between lunch and dinner the riders have various meetings, interviews, massages, and/or free time. During the meetings a presentation is given regarding the history of the team and where they hope the are headed. The Belgian details each sponsor, what they do, how they fit in, and why they’re an integral part of the team. It’s clear that Axeon takes each sponsor’s contributions seriously and impresses upon the riders the gratitude it has for their involvement. The final day ends how any camp should end, not with trust falls, but miniature golf. A few more interviews are conducted and the riders retire for the night.
Just by looking at Keegan you wouldn’t expect that he spent so much of his time a few years ago doing parkour. Or freestyle skiing. How could you? Search “Keegan Swirbul” on Google and every result on the first page is related to cycling. The other Axeon riders are no different; each has his own background and interests. One rider was riding BMX at four-and-a-half, one rider currently works part time at a winery, and another is studying criminal justice at a university. While their lives revolve heavily around cycling now, not everyone was born riding a bike and not everyone, even now, spends every waking minute riding.
It’s the background and the lesser known facts about their riders that Axeon and I wanted to explore. Many of us cyclists and cycling fans can all too easily get lost in dreamy bike pics and everything that is the Tour de France. There’s talk of riders’ watts per kilogram, the components on team bikes, and race stage wins, but the conversation trails off quickly. It’s very cyclo-centric. We might hear about where a rider grew up, their diet, or what activities they enjoy in their spare time, but seldom before they make it big.
U23 riders are an interesting subset of pro cyclists, not yet seasoned with years of experience and habits, but also not fresh off the boat newbies. Life as a professional means discipline; life as a young adult means experimentation. U23 riders are at a unique crossroads of the two. I remember what it was like being 19 and I know a little bit about what it’s like being an athlete (a very marginal one), but not both at the same time. All in all, I wanted to know what cycling’s future pro peloton riders were up to today. And so a few weeks ago in the Arizona desert I started this year’s journey to find out.
But first I’m watching a Youbtube video of Keegan doing a running front flip down 13 stairs for the fourth time.